With EPFL's support, Croatia wants to hold onto talented researchers

Under a pilot project that draws on EPFL’s expertise, four highly promising young Croatian researchers will be awarded tenure-track professor status and receive a million francs to set up a research program in their country. The project was launched today in Zagreb.

Croatia’s pilot tenure-track program will brighten the career prospects of a handful of the country’s top young researchers. The program, which was officially launched today in Zagreb, was developed by EPFL, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the Croatian Ministry of Science and Education, the Croatian Science Foundation (CSF) and various academic institutions in Croatia. This ambitious program, which has a budget of 4.7 million francs, aims to drive innovation in Croatia and limit brain drain.

Following a selection process that began in March, four young and highly promising Croatian researchers will be awarded tenure-track professor status. They will each receive a budget of one million francs to set up a laboratory, hire a team and put a research program in place - all within four to five years.

"Not only do we want to encourage the talented pool of Croatian scientists living abroad to return home, but we also want to give young researchers a real chance, responsibilities and future prospects in their own country so they will no longer need to go abroad in order to have a successful career," says Olivier Küttel, head of International Affairs at EPFL. To achieve this, the program will offer a package that includes a team, equipment, lab space, administrative support and, most importantly, a free hand in managing these resources. If, after four years, the pilot program is a success and the researchers live up to expectations, they will be given tenure.

Tome Anti’i’, State Secretary for Science and EU funds at the Ministry of Science and Education, describes the importance of this project for his country: "Croatia is home to very talented scientists, and we must offer the best of them career prospects so that we can retain them. The tenure-track program proposed by EPFL, funded by Switzerland and implemented by the Croatian Science Foundation is a very promising model, and we as a Ministry will closely monitor its success. In fact, the Ministry is in the process of establishing a new research system based much more on international excellence, and this model could form the basis for a much larger initiative in the near future."

Successfully tested

The idea dates back four years, right after Croatia joined the European Union. The project, which was even more ambitious at the time, was submitted to the European Commission for funding through the Horizon 2020 program. Then, on 9 February 2014, the "Stop Mass Immigration" initiative passed in Switzerland, and the project had to be re-thought and scaled back. In the end, The Croatian government will cover 15% of the project’s cost in addition to providing appropriate research facilities.

This pilot program presented EPFL’s Senior Management with an opportunity to promote its widely hailed tenure-track system. EPFL is one of the only universities in Europe to use this system, which it put in place in 2000. A total of 171 people have benefited from this status at EPFL, and many of them have won ERC Starting Grants, which are the most prestigious awards bestowed on young researchers by the European Council.

EPFL experts have played an active role in designing Croatia’s pilot project from the outset. They are also closely involved in evaluating the applicants. The winners will be announced this fall.

"This initiative is meant to attract and retain the best scientific minds. We also hope that it will have a multiplier effect over the longer term," says Küttel. "These talented young scientists will certainly attract others like them, create jobs and startups, and ultimately give Croatia’s economy a real boost. And since it’s a pilot project, it could be quickly rolled out in other European countries."